Creaky joints, an aching back
and 92 years on the planet have slowed C.J. "Pappy"
Hart. But not when he is behind a steering wheel.
A few years ago, when he was
87 to be exact, a Texas cop wrote him up for speeding. He was
doing 85. In his motor home.
Nowadays, though, he drives a
Ford Focus, for which he is deeply apologetic. "I like the
gas mileage," he allows. "But I can run it at 95 mph
when I want to."
Widely credited for turning drag
racing into a motor sport when he and Creighton Hunter opened
the Santa Ana Drags in 1950, Hart is alive and well.
So is Hunter, 83, another old dragster.
Speed may kill, but in the case
of the two old dragsters, it's an elixir that keeps them going,
still pushing the speed envelope in their own way.
Hunter, a Santa Ana resident,
owns a 1933 Ford roadster, a hot rod powered by an eight-cylinder
Mercury flathead engine, which he still drives. Parked next to
the Ford in Hunter's garage is a four-door Buick Park Avenue,
a more conventional senior citizen's car.
But Hunter ordered the Buick
with a supercharged engine. "I don't get passed a lot when
I take it out," he said.
Friends for more than 50 years,
Hart and Hunter are icons in the hot rod community, the fondly
remembered fathers of the Santa Ana Drags, the first commercial
drag strip in America. Races were held Sundays on an unused runway
at what is now John Wayne Airport, from 1950 to 1959.
"They were pioneers, no
doubt about it. Especially Pappy," said Greg Sharp, curator
at the National Hot Rod Assn. museum in Pomona. "He started
the country's first organized commercial drag strip and left
his mark on the sport."
Although nothing more than a
memory now, the Santa Ana Drags has taken on mythical proportions
among those in motor sports, like a treasured old baseball stadium
long since turned to dust.
Reproductions of the strip's
decal promoting Sunday drag races at "Orange County Airport"
are sold at car shows. Old photographs are collectibles. And
when the strip was forced to shut down in the summer of 1959,
Life magazine reported its closure with a huge spread on the
Southern California street and drag racing scene.
Hunter, a retired oil distributor,
sold his interest in the strip to Hart in the first month of
operation. Hart, who owned a gas station in Santa Ana at the
time, went on to run the strip with his wife, Peggy, a dragster
The Harts are enshrined in the
International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, and C.J. Cloyce
Joe, but always "Pappy" to friends is a member
of the Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Before organized drag racing,
Hart and other speed merchants challenged one another "to
drag it out" in illegal street contests. Harbor Boulevard.
Golden West Avenue in Huntington Beach. He raced a 1932 Ford
roadster with a Cadillac engine that he claims to have topped
out at 156 mph in a Mojave lakebed.
Peggy Hart raced a 1933 Willys
coupe with a supercharged engine that registered 129 mph as its
fastest time in a Mojave race.
According to C.J. Hart and Hunter,
they were inspired to establish the Santa Ana Drags at the tip
of a Marine bayonet. Racing lore has it that Hart and Hunter
held illegal races on an abandoned Navy airfield on what is now
Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley.
"The strip was so wide we
could run up to eight cars abreast," Hart said. "So
you always had good chance of beating somebody."
One Sunday, a truckload of Marines
pulled up and chased off the dragsters. Hart and the others continued
to race illegally on side streets and thoroughfares alike. City
officials in Santa Ana finally suggested that they try an unused
runway at Orange County Airport.
Airport officials agreed to rent
them the runway for 10% of the gate. Admission was 50 cents,
later increased to $1, and racers paid a buck to compete. For
an extra 25 cents, spectators could hang around the pits and
watch mechanics work on the cars.
Attendance at the first race
was about 500, plus 60 or so racers, Hunter recalled. After that,
attendance averaged about 2,500. Hart said the final Sunday drew
more than 4,000.
Hart also began paying the top
eliminators in each class. Winning drivers received $1 per mile
and a $4 trophy.
"None of the winners ever
got rich," Hart said. "Sometimes the winners would
sell the trophy back to us. They'd rather have the money. Other
times I'd have to give money to the drivers who didn't win so
they could get home."
The Santa Ana Drags closed because
airport operators needed their runway back. So that was that.
Though long retired, Hart still has the passion for the roar
of a drag strip competition. His summer vacation plans? Catching
the drags in Sonoma County.